Thoughts and analysis on Putin

The US and Europe spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on Defence. Why? For the last ten or fifteen years, the answer has been that our militaries exist to ‘intervene’ – to end conflict, drive out terrorists, topple regimes, and build democratic states. NATO doctrine has focused on intervention (and stretched to Somali piracy). It did not expect to fight in Europe again, and did not train for large-scale conventional war. It seemed inconceivable that someone would invade Ukraine and annex Crimea. Now, suddenly, our Defence policy hinges on the question: how big a threat is Putin’s Russia?

What motivates Putin? Does he feel encircled by NATO, threatened by the EU, and antagonised by a powerful West? Does he, as his speech to the Duma implies, see his action in Crimea as no different from the West’s intervention in Kosovo? What cocktail of insecurity and confidence, defence and aggression is driving him? Is the problem that he sees the West as too strong, or as too weak? How powerful is his military? What will he do next? And how should NATO respond?

The dominant view at the moment in Britain, France and the US, is that the threat is still minimal. Western analysts argue that Russia’s ageing population, its mortality rates, its corruption, its undemocratic system, and its over-dependence on gas revenue, makes it weak ‘in the long-term’. Most of our diplomats say that Putin would not dare to trouble a NATO member state such as Estonia, Lithuania, or Latvia. They are reluctant even to discuss the scenario, because ‘it’s just not going to happen.’ They consider it sufficient to increase aerial patrolling, and send a few hundred US troops to the region. They feel that we should not respond too strongly, for fear of making Putin more aggressive, escalating the tensions, and fostering to a new Cold War.

But states neighbouring Russia such as Estonia or Latvia argue that Putin is very dangerous. They emphasise that over the past five years, while NATO’s Defence spending has dropped by 20 per cent, Russian Defence spending has increased by 50 per cent; and that Putin plans to spend another 700 Billion just on upgrading existing military equipment. On this account, the annexation of Crimea, followed logically from the annexation of part of North Georgia, in 2008. Russian military doctrine and Putin’s speeches present NATO as a ‘strategic adversary’. His action in Ukraine has been popular in Russia. Recent military exercises have suggested that Russia could mobilise up to a hundred thousand troops in seventy-two hours, and that they have already trained for invading the Baltic.  Those states argue that Putin only understands strength, that there is no point pretending any more that he is a potential partner, or worrying about irritating him.  And that Putin may be tempted to destabilise or even invade a Baltic state.

Which is the right assessment? If the former, we need to concentrate on some minimal actions to reassure the Baltics states without antagonizing Putin. If the latter, we may need to consider prepositioning supplies, and building bases in Eastern Europe, increasing surveillance, redeploying troops, and planning and training to deter Putin. NATO has been built since 1946 on the idea of protecting its members. If he could destabilise a Baltic member-state, and we were unable to respond, NATO would be fatally weakened. So getting to the right judgement on whether Putin is a threat, and what kind of threat will become central to the Foreign and Defence strategy of the US, Britain and Europe. But our track record on assessing risks and threats has not been good.

The West – the United States, France, Britain and most ‘independent’ think-tanks – failed to predict the Arab Spring. In Afghanistan, President Obama confidently predicted that we would defeat the Taliban and create ‘a credible, legitimate and effective state.’ In Libya, we were confident that the militia would be disarmed and demobilised. In Egypt we u-turned from backing the toppling of a General, to allowing the toppling of an elected President, to backing a General again. In Syria, senior diplomats predicted Bashar Al-Assad would only survive for a matter of weeks. These have been costly mistakes.

Some of these mistakes are due to the unpredictability of the world. But they also reflect the hollowing out of our strategic institutions. The Military’s Defence Intelligence Service has shrunk. People have not been encouraged to devote their intellect and experience to asking hard questions about strategy. We have not learned the lessons of our recent failures. Foreign Office reforms in 2000 reduced the emphasis on historical, linguistic and cultural expertise, and instead rewarded generic ‘management skills.’ Instead, many of our officials in all departments remain distracted by hundreds of emails and tied to their desks, unable to spend significant time, deeply focused on the politics of other cultures.

We have got away with this for the last twenty years, when the major issues seemed to be economics, and terrorism. But Crimea reminds us that we could face much more direct threats to the European alliance. This does not mean we should over-react to Putin. But it does mean we have to understand what he is doing, and is likely to do, and plan for some testing scenarios. Good defence requires investing in research, and analysis to ensure that we comprehend the threats, and have a strategy to respond.  This need not be expensive. We currently spend tens of billions on Defence and Foreign Policy. But a hundred more people worldwide – out of the almost hundred thousand we currently employ – specialising in international politics, and defence strategy would now be a very good investment.

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